Grass-Fed Beef

Returning each summer to our country house perched on a mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is always a delight. But this year it seemed even more so, as I turned up the steep driveway and was greeted by our small herd of Black Anguses and Belted Galways grazing peacefully in the pasture just below the house.

We—my step-daughter, Bronwyn, and my cousin John, who is a year-round farmer up here and a close neighbor—decided a couple of years ago that it would be a good idea to use our land to raise a very small herd of grass-fed beef. John is an experienced herdsman, having raised heifers for many years until they were ready to be milked, at which stage he would sell them to local dairy farmers. But with small farms being eaten up by big industrial farms, there was less and less demand for milking cows in the area. So this seemed like a feasible alternative, and there was a clear demand for good grass-fed beef.

I was particularly pleased because it meant that our once lovely meadows—which farmers who settled here in the 19th century had struggled to clear, heaving huge rocks out of the earth—would be returning to pastureland. However, I’m not sure that John fully anticipated what a daunting task he had taken on, harvesting endless bales of hay during the summer months and then hauling them out to the cattle twice a day all through the cold winter months, to say nothing of playing midwife more than once to cows giving birth at below-freezing temperatures.

Last November the first five had gone to market and we kept one half of a 600-pounder to divide among us. So during the holidays and ensuing winter months in New York I had the privilege of eating the best beef I had tasted in years. For Christmas I served a tender, intensely flavorful loin roast, and later shared with food-loving friends the brisket and back ribs, cooked long and slowly with the flavors sealed in. I also feasted on many a pan steak from different cuts, each yielding nuances of taste and texture. When I got back to Vermont the freezer still had plenty to offer, in particular stew cuts, ground meat, and all those organs that most people shun but which I have always relished.

The fourth of July was quickly upon us—and what better way to celebrate than to get the grills going and cook up those American favorites, hamburgers with all the trimmings. By the time we’d counted up family and in-laws and their various guests, we had twenty-one to cook for. Fortunately among our family connections was a young man, Patrick McCormick from Wisconsin, who had just been made top chef at The Tornado Room, a fine steak house in Madison—in fact, the news of his appointment had just come through the day before. And what fun it was to work alongside him, to observe how he treated the coarsely ground meat with such respect, handling it gently, never slapping it down as he seasoned and shaped it, never pressing it with a spatula as it cooked, which only leaches out the juices and makes the meat hard. He knew exactly when the hamburgers were done just by eyeing the patties and pressing them lightly with his fingers (when the meat springs back, they’re done to a rosy rare). All too quickly about 10 pounds of that wonderfully flavorful grass-fed beef was gobbled up, and every one agreed they were the best hamburgers they could remember.

I still have lots left to experiment with—the tongue, the tail, the liver and the kidneys. Not to forget the heart! With that I’d like to make a Welsh dish called “Love in Disguise,” in honor of my Welsh husband, Evan, who prepared it once for his daughter Bronwyn on her 16th birthday. But I have searched and cannot find the recipe. Does anyone have a clue?

What Would Julia Have Thought?

I have just returned to Bryn Teg, my mountain retreat in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, after a whirlwind trip to do my share of promoting the about-to-be-released movie, Julie and Julia. After sixteen interviews in one day in Toronto and seventeen in Boston plus a panel discussion following a screening of the film, instead of being drained, I felt exhilarated. There is such an outpouring of affection for Julia that the fun of having her in the guise of Meryl Streep back on the screen is positively infectious.

When I first looked at my schedule I wondered whether I had enough to say about everyone’s favorite cook and if I wouldn’t just be repeating the same old stories. But curiously each interviewer seemed to have a slightly different personal take on the subject and their questions were varied and probing enough to keep things perking. There was one question that persisted, however, and that was: What would Julia have thought of the movie?

There’s no easy answer to that but it’s interesting that it seemed such a concern. It is as though her fans wanted to protect her. Obviously it’s hard for anyone to see herself projected on screen, and the telling characteristics of voice and gesture as acted out by someone else can make one uncomfortably self-conscious. For all her good sportsmanship, I sensed that Julia was rather embarrassed by the Dan Aykroyd caricature on Saturday Night Live. But, first and foremost, Julia was a pro and she valued superior performance. So I am sure she would have admired the marvelous alchemy that takes place as Meryl Streep becomes the essence of Julia before our eyes.

Also, Julia was a bit of a ham, as she would readily admit. She understood that you have to create drama in a role, and a touch of high-pitched exaggeration is part of the game. She certainly would have warmed to the Paris scenes, particularly the moments at the market when those macho French vendors seem enchanted by her exuberance and clear love of food. As for chopping those piles of onions in order to perfect her knife skills, that would have hit home.

Above all, Julia would have been delighted by the young people in the audience who went away thinking cooking was fun and wanted to get into the kitchen with Julia. Julie, as played so engagingly by Amy Adams, begins to really enjoy the challenge she has set herself and she feels empowered by her mentor’s presence.

Julia Child was driven by a sense of mission. She genuinely wanted to teach her fellow Americans the secrets and subtleties and rewards of French cooking. So how could she not appreciate Julie and Julia for awakening a whole new generation to Mastering the Art?

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